“Hold still!” shouts 27 year old tattoo artist Isaac Adams, slurring slightly in a heavy Philadelphia accent, dirty blond hair tucked absently behind one ear, eyes swollen and glazed, following the buzzing needle. Michael Aurello, 23, looks down, wincing, then back at the wall.
In a slightly a softer tone, Isaac adds, “I haven’t slept in two days, man. So hold still. Please.”
A look of panic crosses Mike’s face.
“Is that blood? Oh god I can feel the blood dripping!” he half giggles, half whimpers, biting his beer bottle.
“Stop being a pussy” Isaac laughs, “It’s just ink. We’re not even at your shin yet. We’re just in the muscle. Wait ‘til we get to the shin” he pauses, dips the needle in some ink, takes a drag from his cigarette, and adds in a bored tone, “Do you want a free tat or not?”
Isaac, like many tattoo artists, is self-taught and almost completely covered in tattoos, (“how else are we supposed to learn?”). Born in West Philadelphia, he left home before he was 18 and has been traveling the country since, sometimes squatting, sometimes renting large spaces with fellow tattoo artists. Currently, he works at two tattoo shops, traveling between Philly and New York every couple of weeks. He also works out of his home or brings his set of equipment to other people’s houses. For the most part, he and his friend’s lives revolve around their art—they trade pictures of their work, practice on one another, and host massive tattoo conventions.
Although his style is “classic” and simple (pin-up girls, skulls, monsters) it extremely developed, and he has spent years training in several “genres” ranging from classic Japanese imagery to Henna, as well as faces, characters, letters and scenes. “Each style has a history, a set of rules” he explains with a shrug of the shoulders. “It’s important to understand them all if you want to be taken seriously.”
But Isaac’s quiet and stubborn, and very difficult to get a straight answer out of.
“What’s it feel like getting a tattoo?” I ask.
“I don’t know. I’m always drunk when I get ‘em. Wanna find out?”
A few moments later, I try again.
“Is it true that red dye causes cancer?” I ask.
“Fuck ‘em.” He says.
Wiping blood and ink from Mikes leg, he mumbles, “It would be nice if someone in here coughed up some dough…I’m going to need a beer after this.”
The room goes silent.
“You’re all assholes” he laughs, shaking his head.
But he keeps working. His eyes are fixed, his mouth parted slightly. Occasionally he asks that a cigarette be placed or removed from his teeth. Mike’s tiny room swells with onlookers, beers clink and spill, a bong is passed around, but Isaac barely moves or speaks for over two hours. He’s been working non-stop running on little to no sleep. This is his fourth tattoo in two days. His motivation?
“I love it. It’s all I want to do. And these are my boys.”